Folded Cloth and Other Small Magics

A Stranger Roads Story


The sound is what catches me first, a strange scuffing; hollow, musical in an accidental sort of way. I couldn’t see the source behind a wall of murmuring bodies.

Silence falls on the group, then, clearly, the sound of someone tapping confidently on something hollow. There’s a scrape and sudden groan of dismay from the crowd.

After a moment a voice breaks through the wall of murmerers, cadence rising and falling with the sliding of something hollow across a tabletop, not words so much as a chant.

“Hereitis, watchitnow, watchitnow, roundandround, whereditgo, whereditgo, you, you, you, you think know? Whosgottheball, whosgottheballs, adolla, adolla, adolla to guess? You! Yougotit? Putthemoneydown? No? You? Who’sgotadolla, the cups don’t stop, tillsomebodyputadolladown. GuessitrightanIpayyoufive.”

I push through the crush of bodies. It’s the usual downtown city crowd; homeless, mostly homeless, and nervous college kids and young hip professionals trying to look homeless. I take a moment for introspection, to chide myself for calling people kids when they’re almost certainly older than me. Whatever, age is just a number, but growing up in the suburbs is forever. It’s a heady mix of piss, BO, and bad cologne. The scent of a city, concentrated like some sort of hippie plant extract.

Not that I’m knocking suburbs. There’s a reason people live in them given the chance. Probably because the entire place doesn’t smell like piss, stale sweat, and Axe body spray. Maybe because every surface isn’t coated in that greasy scuz that covers everything anywhere too many humans hang out.

Not that I’m knocking cities. The more poor saps living in them, rotating from the tiny boxes where they live, to the tiny boxes where they work, to the tiny boxes they’re buried in, the more space there is for people who don’t feel like spending their life as unbilled supporting cast in a dystopian play.

There’s a man behind the table, rocking white-guy-dreads, which is usually nature’s shorthand for, “I make poor life decisions,” but it’s sort of working for him, even if it clashes with his long wispy goatee. He’s got a tattoo across the left side of his face, of a coin, with wings, one stretching up over his eyebrows, the other down his neck.

I move in closer. It’s not a smooth process; there are elbows involved. Three cups are face down on the table moving back and forth, in sinuous motion. The man’s wearing a long wool coat with the sleeves rolled way up, and a beat up old top hat. There’s a tattoo wrapping around his right arm in a loose spiral, starting in the web of his thumb and wrapping around three times to end on his elbow. I try to read it, and can only make out, “If you’re . . . you’re not . . . left . . .”

The chant is still going, “Payadolla, winfivedolla, putthemoneydown, moneydown, moneydown, andcupsstop, riskadolla, winafiver!”

Right there you know this guy’s running a crooked game. There’s three cups, so he’d break even long run with a three-to-one payout. Five-to-one means he’s running a con.

I settle in to watch. I’ve never regretted sticking around to watch a good con.

Someone slaps a dollar down, and the cups stop in place. The mark taps on one of the plastic cups and the man running the game grins, looking pure evil with the wispy black goatee, but I’m surprised to see his teeth are white and even, despite the outward grunge. This is a man with running water and an electric toothbrush, however he might dress. He lifts another cup, and there’s the marble. The guesser cusses and steps back.

The crowd grumbles. There’s a bit of darkness to the murmuring, a threat like distant thunder. The man springs to his feet and draws a deck of cards from . . . somewhere. He bends them, shoots them in a sputtering stream with a sound like baseball cards in bicycle spokes from one hand to another. Then he throws them up in the air in a way that looks random, but can’t be, because, waving his arms around, he catches all fifty-two before they’re any lower than his waist.

“Pickacard, anycard,” he says, fanning out the deck to the man he just took the dollar from. The man scowls, and the con man, magician, whatever, he grins wider, and whips out the dollar.

“Fair is fair, I’ll pay you a dollar to let me guess your card.”

The man’s hand swipes out, takes the dollar back, and tucks it into his shirt pocket. Then he reaches out, and draws a card.

“Don’t show me, show the crowd,” the magician says, making a show of turning away, right arm still extended with the cards. I take the chance to read more of the tattoo, “. . . reading this . . . watching my . . .”

“Put it back now, put it back, and I’ll guess it, to get my dollar back!”

“One dollar,” says the man, “not five.”

The magician laughs and makes a show of shuffling the cards in a myriad of seemingly impossible ways, including one-handed. Then he says, flipping a card face up, “This one?”

The man smirks and shakes his head, and the magician frowns, and tells the crowd, “Looks like I messed it up. Okay, okay, stop me when I get to the right one,” he takes the deck and begins to flipping through it about as fast as the eye can track, one card after the next, brushing against each other with a soft rustling, like  turning the pages in an old book.

Finally, he loops through, back through to the beginning. The man’s smirk is gone, he looks confused, and the magician grins, and he says, “It wasn’t there.”

The magician’s frown deepens, “You sure?”

“I’m sure.” The man’s scowling again, and the crowd’s leaning forward, waiting. There’s a knowing sort of silence, and I realize I’m not the only one here looking for a good con.

“Check your pocket.”

The man rolls his eyes and reaches into his pocket, pulling out the card. I jump a little as the gathered crowd lets out a roar of approval. After a second, the man fishes around in his pocket, and says, “Hey! The dollar!”

The magician holds it up, grinning and everyone laughs. After a begrudging few seconds, even the man he took the bill from is grinning, and the magician sits, down, beginning his chant all over again.

Then the crowd parts like Moses parted the Red Sea, only it really happens, and a cop walks through it, eyeing the table.

“What’s going on here?” he asks.

The magician’s back on his feet, all smiles, “Officer, just the person I wanted to see, I need an assistant.”

The cop looks speculatively at the shell game and says, “I can assist you right to jail for illegal gambling if you don’t pack this up right now.”

The magician says, “This is a magic show, nothing illegal. No gambling, just a pay-to-play with an award for anyone who can catch the trick!”

The cop gives him his best cop face, and doesn’t move. The magician nods, and says, “Look, I’ll prove it’s a magic act, I’ll put my money where my mouth is. Handcuff me, and if I’m still handcuffed when we get to the car you can take me straight to jail. I’ll confess to anything, gambling, prostitution, assaultmurderkidnappingrobberyburglarlymuggerythuggery—“ he pauses, holding up one long-fingered hand, “but not racketeering, because I don’t know what hell that is.”

The cop snorts. “No one does, and you’ve got yourself a deal smart guy.”

The magician holds out his hands in front of him, but the cop spins him around, and cuffs his hands behind him, begins chauffeuring him to the squad car. I watch, everyone watches, with bated breath the magician, still handcuffed the entire time he’s guided into the back of the cruiser, until the door shuts.

At which point the crowd shifts like the single beast it is to the magician’s bag of earnings for the day.

The cop’s no fool either, because he’s already headed back to the table, growling, “Don’t even think about it. I will chase you. I will catch you. I will accidentally shoot you in the nuts with my taser.”

As he gets to the table, and reaches for the bag, everyone, including him, including me, jumps about a foot in the air as a siren goes Whoop! Whoop!

The magician is waving at us from the front seat of the squad car, grinning. The cops stalks over, looking not at all thrilled and opens up the door.

“Out!”

The magician steps out of the car. The cop looks at him for a second, then says, “Fine. That was pretty good. But if I come back tomorrow, this alley better be empty, alright?”

The magician bows, the crowd applauds, and then we’re back to it.

I settle in to watch. One of the nicer things about going nowhere is you can usually do it in your own time. The members of the crowd come and go, but the beast remains the same, cells dying and being replaced in a single body.

The shell games are the meat and potatoes, though they’re sometimes played with cards, but every time the crowd gets tired of losing he pulls out another trick.

Then we reach the finale.

“This is the best trick I’ve got!” he promises, holding out the hat. “Putyourmoneyinthehat! I’llmakeitdisappear!”

The crowd laughs, but they start throwing change in, but he says, “No, no, no, I need bills, any bills, any demonination, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Satisfaction, or your money back, guaranteed with receipt!”

More quiet chuckles, and then the bills start to come out. I throw one in, too. Once he’s shown the hat around a few times, jingled it under the noses of a few holdouts, and peered sadly at the contents a few times, he sighs, shakes it a couple times, and slaps it down on the table. Then he taps the top.

Once.

Twice.

Three times, he taps it, then he pulls it away with a flourish, and underneath the coins are sorted, stacked, and, on top of them and around them, the bills stand, folded into various origami animals.

The crowd cheers and applauds.

“Did you like that? Did you like that? Whowantsanencore!”

He passes the hat around again, and at least as much money flows into it again. He slaps it down on the table, and taps it.

Once.

Twice.

Three times, he taps, then he pulls it way with a flourish, and there’s . . . a large, fat, white, rat, chewing on a one-dollar bill.

“No! Not again!” He tears what’s left of the one away from the rat, shoves it in a coat, and holds out his hat to the crowd. “Excuse me, sir, excuse me, ma’am, but a rat ate all my money, can you spare some change?”

That earns more applause, and more money.

He takes a final bow, waves everyone off, and begins to pack up.

“Show’s over, folks, all out of magic. Go home!” He looks at me, and shakes his head, “Not you, stranger. You sat here all day, for hours, watching me. You’re going to put a dollar down, and we’re going to see if you figured anything out.”

I shrug.

He unpacks the three cups, and places the marble on the table, putting the cup over it.

A few people from the crowd hang back to watch.

He does is little song and dance. I know there’s a con, I think I might know the con, but sometimes you take your chances in life, believe in just a little magic. His hands are a blur, the cups are singing their scuffing gospel to the gods of chance and trickery, the gods of chance and not-chance, really.

“Five-to-one?” I ask.

“Five-to-one,” he says, grinning.

I put a twenty down. The crowd gasps, the magician grins, a glint in his eyes. The cups stop.

I reach out the moment they stop moving, my eyes closed, and, rather than tapping the cup, I lift it, without looking.

The crowd shouts, and I don’t look, and I can’t tell if they’re excited I won or excited I lost. I open my eyes, and there it is, the marble.

The magician applauds, crinkles up the twenty, then unfolds it as a crisp hundred dollar bill, which he hands to me.

Part of me suddenly wishes I’d lost, given the company I’m keeping. I’ve just clevered myself into wearing an all-steak wetsuit in a shark tank.

The magician’s reached the same conclusion, and apparently isn’t the sort to hold a grudge. He looks at the crowd, “That bill’s cursed for everyone but this kid. You take if from him, bad luck’s going to rain down on you for one hundred days.”

I look around, and no one looks at me. They don’t believe him, but they don’t quite disbelieve him either. Hell, neither do I.

Someone asks me, “How’d you do that? How’d you get the right one?”

I shrug, and tell him the truth, “I just picked one randomly.”

“Lucky sonofabitch,” another bystander confirms.

The magician grins, and says, “Come on kid, there’s a coffee shop up the street that will break a hundred if you spend more than ten bucks there, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”

As we walk, he says, “Random guess, eh? That was brave.”

I shake my head. “Not when there was a marble under every cup.”

He laughs.

“Maybe. Or maybe you just believed in the magic enough for it to believe in you back.”

“Magic’s not real,” I tell him.

He grins. “If you believed that, I’d’ve pocketed that twenty.”

“You’re saying none of what you do is tricks?”

He laughs for real, then, his dreadlocks dancing like snakes.

Everything I do is a trick. Doesn’t mean it’s not magic.”

“Magic’s not real,” I say again, though I stopped believing that a thousand miles and a hundred nightmares ago.

He waves at the city traffic. “A couple hundred years ago cars weren’t real, phones weren’t real, skyscrapers weren’t real. Stranger, the whole world’s made of things that weren’t real until they were. What I do isn’t magic, but magic’s real.”

“Oh yeah, you’ve seen it?”

He nods. “Hell yes, I’ve seen it. Saw it for the first time in Kindergarten. The janitor there was magic.”

I give him a sideways glance. “Is this story about to go to a dark place, because I’ve gotta tell you I’ve heard enough stories that go to dark places lately.”

He shakes is his head, and says, “No, no, I mean he was actually magic. It was just small magic, so I don’t think he even knew about it. I’m sure no one else did.”

We walk through the door of the coffee shop. It’s climate controlled, and it smells like fresh-baked cookies. My mouth starts watering.

“So what was this small magic then?”

He waves a hand to wait, then places his order. The girl behind the register isn’t put off by his look, which, looking at her, makes me think she must know him. She certainly gives me a sketchy glance, and checks the hundred twice, first by rubbing a pen on it, then by holding it up to the light. I glance aside at the magician, a bit worried as I consider who I got the bill from. But it checks out, at least beneath the discerning gaze of a college-aged hippie chick, and we grab a table.

On the way, the magician grabs a cloth napkin.

“So every day, this janitor, Mr. Gregorski, brings a rag to school made of a foot-by-foot, or so, torn piece of white T-shirt, and he uses it to clean everything, right?”

I nod, and he waves the cloth napkin in front of me.

“He doesn’t just let it flop loosely, though,” he starts folding the cloth, “he folds it over and over, until it’s just big enough for his first two fingers, and he cleans whatever he’s cleaning with that small part. He was a very meticulous man. Everything was spotless.”

“Alright,” I say.

“So, when each part gets dirty, he folds it to a new part, a clean part,” he flips the napkin to show what he means, “and he does that over and over. Clean with these two fingers of clothe until it’s a dirty, grimy, mess, then flip it over to a snow-white clean segment. All day. The same rag.”

“Okay?”

He waits, and I look at him, wondering what I’m missing.

“He never, ever, ran out of clean two inch sections.”

“So?”

He scowls and flips the napkin open. “One foot by one foot, right? That one hundred forty-four square inches per side, there’s two sides, but we’re talking two square inch segments, minus the creases, so the two sides cancel out, that means there are one hundred forty-four two square inch segments of the rag for him to use. He has one hundred forty-three flips before he runs out of cloth.”

“That seems like a lot.”

He shrugs. “It does, I guess, but I’d watch him, and he’d flip that rag over to a clean side thousands of times every day, and he never, ever, ran out. You figure he flips it about once a minute, that’s still maybe two hours of rag.”

He holds up his hands and wiggles his fingers. “I make my own sort of magic, but I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve never been able to find one more square of clean napkin. I believe in magic, stranger, more than I believe in life, or in love, or in god. I worship at the alter magic, and practice it every day, in the hope that one day it will believe in me back. Part of me wants to hate you on principle.”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” I tell him, between bites.

“I’ve seen it. Lots of times.”

“We usually see what we’re looking for.”

“Isn’t that magic, in and of itself?” he counters.

“There’s no such thing as magic,” I repeat.

He gives me a steady look. “Yeah? Well, there wasn’t a marble under any of those cups, either.”

I don’t believe him, of course. But I don’t quite not believe him, either. He tosses the napkin onto my empty plate; when I move it aside, I find a marble beneath. When I glance up, he’s gone. Obviously.

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